As he was sitting in the airport awaiting a flight to Baltimore on his first day as a free agent, Steve Smith received a phone call from San Diego Chargers head coach Mike McCoy, a man he knew quite well.
McCoy, a former Carolina Panthers assistant, was interested in at least exploring a reunion after the wide receiver was cut by the Panthers.
"It was more a conversation to see where he was at and what his plans were," McCoy said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "Obviously, he made a great decision for him and his family. He's having a great year, but you know, [general manager] Tom Telesco and myself, we're always going to contact people and see where their interests are. Sometimes, you mention to players that we're interested and it doesn't go too far. Some are more involved, but he made the right decision for himself and his family and he's had a great season."
Smith's 14th NFL season has been eye-opening for the 35-year-old, given that the Panthers organization was all he had ever known. But each game seems to bring Smith flashbacks to an earlier phase of his career, and that's the case again as the Ravens (7-4) prepare to face the Chargers (7-4) on Sunday in a key game at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Week Four game against the Panthers, who Smith torched for 139 receiving yards and two touchdowns, was of the personal variety, though Smith downplayed that. Monday's matchup with the New Orleans Saints provided opportunity for Smith to torment a former NFC South foe, and he did just that with four catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.
But the Chargers are different — Smith has close ties with several members of the organization. McCoy was a Panthers offensive assistant for Smith's first eight seasons in the NFL. Chargers wide receivers coach Fred Graves recruited Smith to play at the University of Utah, coached him when he got there, and later was his position coach in Carolina.
Chargers safety Eric Weddle, who also went to Utah, is one of Smith's closest friends in the NFL. Smith frequently talks about his fondness for laying hard blocks on safeties, but he acknowledged he and Weddle will likely have dinner together when the Chargers arrive in Baltimore on Friday.
"Those guys I've known for years and have relationships with, pretty close-knit relationships," Smith said. He made no effort to stifle a grin when asked whether he had been close to signing with the Chargers.
"I talked to those guys," Smith said. "I talked to them when I became a free agent. We discussed it a little bit."
That same night he spoke to McCoy and flew to Baltimore, Smith also got a call from New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. He was supposed to go to New England on a free-agent visit, but the Ravens didn't let him leave their facility without a contract.
Baltimore's proximity to Smith's Charlotte, N.C., home, his chance to join an established Super Bowl contender and the Ravens' insistence that Smith be himself all factored in his decision.
Smith, who signed a three-year, $11 million deal with the Ravens in March, has 53 receptions for 817 receiving yards and five touchdowns. With five games to go, he's already surpassed his totals from last year in yards and touchdowns.
"It doesn't shock me one bit," McCoy said. "He's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever been around — the shape he comes into in the season and the way he works every day, his competitive desire to be successful and be the best, week in and week out. It doesn't matter if it's a preseason game, the first week of the season, the Super Bowl, he plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, and he puts it all out there on Sundays."
The Chargers have made do without Smith. With Philip Rivers at the helm, San Diego's passing offense ranks 13th in the NFL, averaging 248.2 yards per game. Second-year wideout Keenan Allen leads the Chargers with 61 catches for 641 yards. Perennial Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates has nine touchdown catches, while Malcom Floyd and Eddie Royal are also proven veteran threats.
But it's still easy to think about the fiery and outspoken Rivers throwing to the fiery and outspoken Smith and imagine what could have been.
"I knew we had a chance maybe to get him out here," Rivers said Wednesday. "I know he had been in Carolina for so long and I know that he was from out this way but he had really made the East Coast home. I didn't know if we'd get him or not."
Rivers, who has crossed paths with the Ravens' receiver at different Pro Bowls, will continue to admire Smith from afar.
"He's awesome. He's an awesome player and an awesome competitor," Rivers said. "Seeing what he's doing now on a new team, it's different, but it's much like you asked me about Gates. I don't know Steve enough to really say too much other than what you see. He's so competitive. That will to win is so strong.
"I guess I saw him say he's 35 on the Monday Night postgame the other day and he's still playing at an unbelievable level. He's a guy that, when we played Carolina and stuff, you always know where he is and he's always capable of changing the game."